A break in the weather, Buckwheat style

By ANDREW CREMATA

On the Friday preceding the 21st Annual Buckwheat Ski Classic, it appeared the start of the event could be in jeopardy. Avalanches caused road closures on the Klondike Highway, and a week’s worth of nasty weather had many wondering if it would break long enough to accommodate the record field of 290 race contenders.

To make matters worse, race founder and director Buckwheat Donahue was getting sick. A hacking cough and fever would keep him bed-ridden on the day of the race, but it was then that things started looking up.

The morning of the race, volunteers and contenders woke to find clearing skies painted with an unfamiliar bluish hue. Trail crews were faced with snow drifts on the winding trails of Log Cabin, where the race is held, due to high winds the night before. Scrambling back and forth on snowmobiles, they worked to clear the drifts and groom the trails all the way up to the start of the first race.

Trail crew member Mike Korsmo was coordinating the volunteers in between trips to the aid station and monitoring the status of the trails. Meanwhile the weather was improving, the snow was slowing, the temperature was rising, and a buzz of excitement was overtaking the field as contestants waxed their skis and dressed for the race.

There are three types of contestants at the Buckwheat Ski Classic. First there is the professional dressed in aerodynamic, tight, presumably expensive gear that only appears to be manufactured in primary colors. These are the real skiers in the crowd, complete with a look of determination. When it comes to cross-country skiing, these people don’t mess around. They jump from the starting line in pursuit of the finish, and there will be no stopping at the aid station for any prolonged periods of time. These people are on a mission.

The second type of contestant is a more casual racer, hopeful of the finish line but not quite delusional enough to think they ever have a chance of finishing in the top three, much less winning. Their clothes lack the wind-cutting designs of the professionals, often come in earth tones and can be worn for other outdoor activities if need be. Many of these racers are trying to beat a personal best, others are just looking to make it to the aid station before the beer runs out, but either way a day of fine weather is all it takes to put them in a good mood, and this was shaping up to be a perfect one.

John Warder is a serious category 2 racer. AC

The Buckwheat draws a third type of contestant. Like someone from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, there is a contingent who takes the opportunity of this one-of-a-kind ski race to dress up in an array of costumes. These outfits are certainly not aerodynamic and many of them look downright cumbersome and uncomfortable. Some will finish the race, but many are just looking for a protracted stay at the aid station. Where this is concerned, the aid seekers are just as serious as the top race contenders.

Just before the start of the first race, two girls from Whitehorse were putting the final touches on their outfits. One was dressed as a skunk, the other as a leopard, and the outfits were complete with tails and ears. A little ways away in the parking lot, a group of four men dressed as Groucho Marx playing Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush from “A Day at the Races” are frequently getting their picture taken by the assembling mass.
Meanwhile, the serious 50K racers were lining up at the starting line. The snow was still falling, but it had slowed considerably. Korsmo let out a Buckwheat style howl, the countdown was completed and the race was underway. It was the same for the rest of the races, the 25K and 10K, the snowshoe race and the children’s events. With the temperature up to 30-degrees and the snow barely falling, volunteers and racers alike began to revel in the fine weather. A trip to the aid station found revelers of a different sort.

Nancy Thomas of Juneau described her 10K race as a chance to “train for the dance.” A longtime veteran of the event, Thomas said she got some ribbing from her friends over her decision to race in the 10K and not the 25K, and remembered a time when the race was held “across the road.”
Thomas’ friend, Stephanie Hoag, sitting next to her and sipping on a bottle of mystery liquid provided by Skagway’s John Warder said, “The trail crew did a great job.”

That praise was echoed by Warder who said, “This is the best race ever. I had my personal best. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Apparently, this contingent is all friends, and participated in their own “tequila ski” during the race. Undoubtedly there are no losers in this type of competition.

“I would’ve been the 10K winner, but they gave me too much beer,” said Beth Potter, also of Juneau, after she claimed victory in the “tequila ski.” Potter said her ultimate goal was to finish, which she did less than an hour behind the womenís 10K race winner, Daliria Beatty.
Warder was happy just to be at the event. He had his own run-in with the weeklong foul weather and got stuck behind an avalanche near Venus Mill on the previous Tuesday. Warder decided to wait out the night and slept on a bed of toilet paper and paper towels while he munched on a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He was as surprised as everyone else over the spectacular conditions the day provided, and agreed the trails were the best they had ever been.

While racers in the 50K were beginning to find the finish line and others in the field were getting into a rhythm, the aid station was getting into a rhythm of its own. The grill was covered with burgers, hot dogs and tri-tips, while aid station attendants passed out Gatorade, orange slices and the occasional nip of the hard stuff, courtesy of kilt-clad Jeremy Simmons.

50K race winner Adam Verrier of Anchorage proved yet again that he is the man to beat when it comes to the Buckwheat Ski Classic. While many who are familiar with the race were not surprised by the outcome, Verrier himself was not so sure he would secure the victory in a race he has now won four times.

Verrier said he was struggling with the flu and took some cold medicine before the start of the race, which left him seeing flashes of gold, red and green. On one occasion on the first leg of the race he swore he saw spiders.

“I pretty much bonked about three times out there,” he said.

Verrier was able to indulge in a little of the whiskey around the half way point and said, “That got me there.”

Verrier, a former U.S. Olympian, has raced all over the world, and while he has an air of invicibility when it comes to the Buckwheat, he said he loses a lot more races than he wins.

“The Buckwheat is unique for a couple of reasons,” he said. “It is the prettiest trail in the world, and the down-to-earth nature of the people associated with it, make it my favorite race.”

“The work that goes into this from local people makes it special,” he added.

It is undoubtedly the determination of the volunteers that make any event successful, and there are many needs for an event such as the Buckwheat. From parking lot attendants and race timers to aid station attendants and SMART bus shuttle drivers, every racer’s and spectator’s needs are taken care of.

With Buckwheat sick in bed, the awards ceremony was hosted by long-time friend, Jeff Brady. A packed house feasted, and enjoyed a little bluegrass music at the Eagles Hall, as everyone shared stories from the day and danced to the twang of the banjo.

The Des Duncan Award, which honors those who go above and beyond the call of duty for the good of the race, was awarded to the people from Yukon Highways who cleared the avalanches from the road the night before the start. They also have assisted the race for years, clearing the main parking lot, and adjacent pull-outs.

The Canadians dominated the awards this year, especially in the kids races where a large contingent from Quebec did well. The biggest ovation of the night came when it was announced that the Yukon Ski Team had taken 13 medals at the national races in Quebec.

Weather was the topic on everyone’s tongue. How it had cleared almost like clockwork, allowing the trails to be some of the best they had ever been, and making for a perfect day in the snow.

Mary McCaffrey worked as a volunteer at the main aid station, and summed up the thoughts of most of the attendees late in the day when she said, “It has been a fabulous day of great sunshine, beautiful people and lots of fun.”

Complete 2007 Results (pdf)

Photos by Andrew Cremata

Photos by Jeff Brady